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Christmas gift to America 20 years ago – a Russia to be thankful for

When the Soviet Union collapsed 20 years ago on Christmas, doomsayers had a field day. But seen strictly from the perspective of what matters most to Americans, the good news is that the nightmares that experts realistically expected about Russia have not happened.

By Graham Allison / December 25, 2011

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev speaks in Moscow on Aug. 17, ahead of the 20th anniversary of an August coup that briefly ousted him and precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union on Dec. 25, 1991. The new Russia benefits the US in many ways, including arms control, energy, and a supply route to Afghanistan.

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko/file

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Cambridge, Mass.

In a Christmas gift on Dec. 25, 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. The “evil empire,” as Ronald Reagan rightly called it, was erased from the map. On its territory, Russia and 14 newly independent states emerged. 

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In the rush of the past two decades, “things have changed so fast we have not yet taken time to be astonished,” the late Czech President Vaclav Havel once observed. The tendency of bad news to drive out the good is well known. How often does a story about positive developments lead television coverage or make the front page? Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement that he will run again for the presidency (and undoubtedly win) casts a cloud that accentuates the negative. 

Nonetheless, as Americans pause during this holiday season to give thanks and reflect, it is appropriate to review what has happened in the new Russia’s first 20 years. Assessed strictly from the perspective of what matters most to Americans, the good news is that the nightmares that experts realistically expected at the time have not happened. 

Who imagined the Evil Empire disappearing – without war?

Who imagined US victory over its cold war rival – with a whimper rather than a bang?

Who imagined a revolution that buried communism – without blood?

Who imagined that 20 years on, not one single nuclear bomb from the entire Soviet arsenal would have been found loose outside Russia? (Recall that in December 1991, on “Meet the Press,” then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney forecast: “If the Soviets do an excellent job at retaining control over their stockpile of nuclear weapons … and they are 99 percent successful, that would mean you could still have as many as 250 [warheads] they were not able to control.”)

Who imagined that the nation that would do more than any other over these two decades to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to additional states would be Russia? (Russia took the lead, with a significant American assist, in preventing Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus from inheriting major strategic nuclear arsenals.)

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